The sounds of summer 2014

Greetings. I thought that quitting my job would open up a vista of opportunities for blogging. And I’ve started a few entries, but the enormity of the subject matter – unemployment, Korean social problems, the Israeli assault on Gaza – has proved overwhelming. So instead, here are some photos of my summer in Korea.

Goraebul Beach

We visited this east coast resort town a week before tourist season, which meant the 8 km long beach and hotel was largely deserted, save for clam pickers. The water was alternately delightfully warm and, on the last day, cramp-inducingly cold. The town itself was being renovated, with a great cycle path and pedestrianized area, but its amenities were restricted to a 7-11 and a few fish restaurants. There wasn’t even a coffee shop, which is strange for Korea.

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The beauty of the beachside location was only marred by the hotel owner’s predilection for 1970s soft rock. I’ve never heard so much Foreigner, Journey and Abba in my life. To make sure we enjoyed it, the owner had installed outdoor speakers by the pool and entrance, and the music was on from 10am-10pm. (I thought it might be a mistake – a mistuned internet radio station – but he had a soft rock hits CD in his minivan too.) Wanting to wake up to waves instead of Carole King, I asked if the outdoor speakers could be turned down, to which the owner’s wife told me – quite apologetically – that it was impossible, and added that only one other person in 8 years had mentioned the music. Koreans tune that sort of thing out. I tried to do the same, particularly when the new age saxophone Christmas hits came on.

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The gorgeous beach. Soft, hot sand, and it really was this empty… except for a military base smack in the middle. We hiked past some desultory barbed wire strung halfway down to the water and noticed there were far fewer footprints. Two soldiers in a guard tower about 100 meters away scoped us with binoculars and then one, on a megaphone, told us this was a restricted area and to get out. We started back the way we came, and his comrade waved at us to keep going, which was friendly enough. Given North Korean submarines have attempted mini-invasions on the east coast before, I see why there are military bases here, but having them in the middle of a civilian beach makes no sense to me. The chances of the North Koreans choosing that exact spot to invade seems remote. The well-built cyclepath goes by the other side of the base, and one evening cycling back I heard the soldiers singing noraebang (karaoke). I can think of worse ways to spend one’s draft time than singing and telling tourists to move along.

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Our hotel cat. The owner said he had fleas and had to stay outside. Once he realized we were friendly he spent a lot of time trying to get into our room. He was old and stiff, with the exception of when he decided he didn’t want my attention and left some marks on my arm.

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The owner setting up our poolside barbeque. My girlfriend explained that barbequing is a woman’s responsibility in Korea – which I found a little surprising, given it’s a rite of manhood in the west. So by providing this service, which included hot coals and chopped meat, he was giving overworked mothers a break, although of course they’d still have to do the roasting themselves.

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This was up at the local government office. As I write, the decomposing body of the Sewol ferry owner/religious cult leader has been found a couple of days ago in a plum field. But he was missing for months, and some aspiring police artist thought this might be helpful.


The home of Samsung, Suwon is also a smallish (over a million) historical centre. I’ve mentioned before on this blog that historical monuments leave me cold – I don’t feel any emotional connection to piles of rock made hundreds of years ago by one ruling group or another. And I’m not a big fan of Korean traditional architecture.

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However, this gate was impressive… if you could get to it. Which, unless you had a car, you couldn’t, as some urban planner had built a ring road around it. Koreans are proud of their heritage – understandably, since the Japanese occupation force spent decades trying to wipe it out – but modernity = cars, which rule the streets here. So I admired the gate from a distance, because it was impossible to walk to it.

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I love the willingness to violate copyright here. If it’s at all marketable, someone will copy it.

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The fact that they have to put up this sign speaks volumes.

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Three of my favourite things.

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Seoul streets


From wikipedia: “Under the influence of Hongik University (Hongdae) which is well known for its prestigious art college, the neighborhood was built on a foundation of artistic souls since the 1990s.”

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Beside Cacaoboom, the premium chocolate shop

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Inside Cacaoboom. It tasted as good as it looks.

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Cafe Object

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The uber-rich come to Hongdae. I drove one of these in Need for Speed, but mine wasn’t metallic blue.

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On the wall of one of the recently-ubiquitous french fry and beer cafes. I’m so happy that particular trend has come to Korea, as I’ve really missed good fries. This restaurant has KakaoTalk animals – for those outside Korea, KakaoTalk is a universally-used messaging app that features chubby dog, cat and – well, I’m not sure what the last one is – mascots.

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And others. This is my favourite. It’s the equivalent to Homer’s “you can stay but I’m leaving.”

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A private school at the Hongdae Homeplus supermarket. He looks as happy as I would be at that age doing complex equations.

Other parts of Seoul

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Near Sookmyung Women’s University. She will never, ever drop the mic.

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A street west of Gwanghwamun palace in central Seoul.

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Near Isu station.

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Bastard wind.

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Shops selling yappy purse dogs are everywhere.

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I’d prefer this as a pet. No idea what it is, but it’s more than an inch long and crawled over my bag.

Words, words, words

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Be original and go local 2018. Something I’m coming to terms with in Korea is the flexibility of meaning. Go local has a tenuous-enough meaning already, but how can an Italian restaurant in Seoul be anything but global/foreign? Or is that somehow going to change in 2018?

For my whole life, I’ve grappled with how to express ideas as precisely as possible, and disputed what I consider to be the wrong meaning of words. But what about words that have no meaning at all? This isn’t babytalk or random machine gibberish: meaningful English phrases appear all over Korea, often as slogans. But they’re divorced from their context and stripped of their significance. English, for non-native speakers, can be decoration.

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Here’s a more sinister example, also from Hongdae. The designer knows what fruit is, but misses the context and hence destroys the song he/she loves. Or more likely, they don’t love it, the words just suggested an image. Spoiler: it’s not about fruit.

For contrast:
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In trust we trust. That only makes sense because it’s a riff on a famous slogan. But of course, it makes no sense at all. I thought it might be a critique of consumerism, showing how circular the worship of money is. But considering that’s one of the most expensive clothing stores in Hanganjin, an already-expensive neighbourhood, I doubt it.

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Here’s some meaning I’m more comfortable with, at Soongsil University.


My neighbourhood has transformed dramatically in the two years I’ve been living there. There was one craft brewery last year; now I count 7. New restaurants and bars keep popping up; I counted 5 under construction within a 5 minute walk of my house. And while the main street used to be filled with flip-flopped foreigners holding red cups and shouting ‘Wooo!’ on weekends, now there’s a steady stream of well-dressed young Korean couples.

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This is entirely unremarkable; a former curry house being gutted and transformed into a gelateria in a matter of weeks.

My girlfriend says Koreans are bored, and coming to the foreigner neighbourhood is cheaper than travelling abroad. And while travelling, Koreans like to eat; in addition to the soon-to-arrive gelateria, there’s…

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… a creperie (the first I’ve seen in Korea). I ordered a nutella crepe and they gave me free blueberries and bananas. In Korea it’s called ‘service’: a freebie designed to attract customers.

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…And a soft ice cream parlour whose offerings include ‘whisky flavour’ (tastes like the real thing) and occasionally emits dry ice.

These are all steps from each other. The neighbourhood is old and crowded, so retail clusters along a few designated strips. But the real estate, hardware and vegetable shops are being replaced with cafes and bars. I can’t say I’m unhappy about that. Itaewon (the neighbourhood right next door) has a bad reputation based on years of drunken US soldiers from the nearby base (literally across the street from the ice cream), but that’s largely ended and it’s become a go-to destination: Saturday night feels like an unending party with beautiful Koreans dressed in impossibly expensive clothing. There will be negative side-effects of course: undoubtedly the demographic of the neighbourhood will shift as older people sell up and younger people move in. But right now rents are still cheaper in HBC/Kyungnidan than the rest of Seoul, and living there means I’m steps away from ice cream and craft beer. I welcome a more exciting class of petty bourgeois.


A flash mob in Hyehwa singing We Go Together from Grease.

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To end on a political note, one of the weekly rallies near City Hall for an independent public inquiry into the Sewol ferry disaster. Months later and thousands of young and old are still attending.


Who gets to make art?

Play this in the background while you read. You know you want to.
She studied sculpture at St. Martin’s College
That’s where I caught her eye
She told me that her dad was loaded
I said, “In that case I’ll have a rum and coca cola.”

Last Christmas, a friend got me a subscription to the London Review of Books, the purveyor of all things middlebrow to the chattering elites. It’s been a welcome salve to the indignities of the daily grind: on lunchhours I can escape from my desk and delve into a world of parlours, salons and galleries.
Marge and Homer at the art gallery

However, after months of reading, the reviews are starting to congeal into an overarching pattern that can be summed up in two words: class privilege. The literary and artistic worlds are full of people rich enough to have leisure time to be creative. And more importantly, they have the confidence to believe that their vision of the world is worth expressing. Here are some examples:

Born in 1844 as the eldest of nine children to a well-off Anglican family, he grew up surrounded by music and art: his father was a marine adjuster who wrote a book about shipwrecks (as well as a book of poems). Hopkins went up to Balliol to do Greats(1)

Does it help to know that she was the eldest of five children born to bourgeois parents in Gotha, Thuringia, or to learn that she left school at 15 because her insurance agent father and amateur painter mother decided she was needed at home? Perhaps not, until one discovers that it was only in 1912, at the age of 21, that she moved to Berlin to pursue her studies(2)

The simplest starting point – and also the ultimate answer – is to say what Bagehot undoubtedly was, thoroughly, professionally and ancestrally: a banker.(3)

Dreams vs Reality (Father Ted)

This world is not mine. Successful artists are scions of bankers, the bourgeois and the well-off. This isn’t a judgment on the quality of their work (not yet anyways), just the circumstances that allowed them to create it.

In 1954, the sculptor Phyllis Lambert was living in Paris when her father, Samuel Bronfman, sent her pictures of the 34-storey skyscraper he planned to build on Park Avenue in New York. Bronfman, the Canadian ‘whisky king’ who owned Seagram distillers … Bronfman, [was] keen to have his strong-willed daughter back from Paris, where she had gone looking for a fresh start after a short-lived marriage to a Belgian banker, [and] gave her the job of choosing an alternative [architect].(4)

‘How did you get to Berlin?’ I asked Francis [Bacon]…. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘my father found me wearing my mother’s underclothes, and to put me right he sent me to a friend – like my father, a horse trainer…. who took me to Berlin. He was very rich and we stayed in a grand hotel. That was the first time I had sex with anyone. From there, I went to Paris. My mother sent me three pounds a week. I never really went back to Ireland.’(5)

The material of the chronicles seems like Howard’s natural and inevitable subject: the tangled but ordinary enough private lives of a fairly undistinguished upper-middle-class family, loosely based on her own, between the 1930s and 1950s.(6)

Why should anyone other than the upper-middle-class want to read about these lives? Is it a case of aspirational entertainment?

But this isn’t TV, and I doubt millions of harassed secretaries and fast food workers are rushing home to read about the drugs Christopher Isherwood took in Berlin. These quotes aren’t plucked selectively from reviews of worker-poets, either; they’re representative samples. I’m also leaving out stories of monarchs, generals and capitalist art collectors, frequent topics of LRB biography but for whom a wealthy background is to be expected. And if our cultural reference-points are made by and about rich people, how much of a leap is it to assume they’re for rich people too?
Homer billionaire

he is undoubtedly a fascinating figure in his own right; one of those English (or in his case Anglo-Irish-Scottish) upperish-class oddballs who enliven Our Island Story… His family had come down in the world, mainly because of his father’s goings-on, which is why he didn’t attend a convention public school”(7)

From the start, she was the beneficiary of her parents’ middle-class smarts. A precociously dreamy, sky-eyed teen daughter, she was wisely shepherded. Family and management were merged”(8)

Antoni Tàpies was born into a cultured Catalan family in Barcelona in 1923. His great-grandfather had been deputy mayor of the city in 1888, … Tàpies’s grandfather was one of the founders of the Lliga Regionalista, the political party that represented Catalan interests.(9)

In Mumbai, Hodgkin has a studio in his hotel. He has another studio in the grounds of his house in Normandy. Paintings are often started in one place and finished elsewhere. The ‘elsewhere’ is an important part of the painting process. Because some of them take years to complete, this is a matter of necessity; time is also a medium for Hodgkin, through the processes of deliberation and detachment.(10)

Ah yes, deliberation and detachment: you can be sure that art made under those circumstances will speak to the world at large.
So bourgeois (Matrix II)

It’s impossible for the class background of these artists not to seep into the art itself:

Mr. X, a bureaucrat at the UN Secretariat, who, with his wife and child,
Lived in a collapsing Gatsby mansion in Oyster Bayt
My wife and I rented half of for that summer, depended for everything
On Shantilal, the sweet houseboy with a shy moustache
Who did everything with a smile…

I glance out the window at the apartment building across Broadway
And see someone looking at me from exactly my floor.(11)

For the record, a studio apartment on Broadway starts at $2,600/month. It makes sense that the only place you’ll see someone else earning that kind of income is from the window of the building opposite. Ever lived in a mansion or had a houseboy? You’re more likely to have been a houseboy.

If her new collection had a motto it might be the title of a characteristic piece, ‘I’m Pretty Comfortable, But I Could Be a Little More Comfortable’. Here the sections bathed in white space are single short sentences, a litany of trivial complaints: ‘The cat has ringworm’, say, or ‘This pesto is hard to blend.’… it seems wrong to detect any satirical intent in the whole. These aren’t being offered as shameful examples of what are disparagingly called ‘First World problems’ but as a piecemeal portrait of a real state of mind, a place that most people visit often enough.(12)

The last sentence is the clue – not just to the poetry, the LRB, or even the class of people allowed to make art, but to the ideology their privileged lives create. To assume that lumpy pesto can stand in for all of life’s ills betrays what Bourdieu called the distance from necessity. It gives a universal voice to a lifestyle enjoyed by a tiny sliver of the world’s population.
Poor to rich (JCVD)

With respect to the poet and reviewer, a state of bored frustration is not “a place that most people visit often”: that place is reserved for having to pay the rent, evade collection agencies, work meaningless jobs to pay off debt or just scramble desperately to find those jobs. If having to pry a cat’s jaw open and drop a pill down its throat (I’ve done that, it’s an art) was a mirror that accurately reflected my reality, I’d be an artist.
Office work (The Matrix)
Where is the art that reflects this reality?

What emerges from these dozens of snapshots are thoughtful, intelligent, troubled, observant, deeply creative figures who reproduce the pleasures and blindspots of their class. This is clear by how they snap back to form when confronted with real life for the working classes. Here’s a painterly couple:

When Ben Nicholson and Winifred Roberts got married, in 1920, they had everything they wanted: time and leisure to paint in, and enough of Winifred’s family money to travel wherever they liked. … They rented – and later, with the help of Winifred’s father, a former undersecretary of state for India, bought – a house above Lake Lugano in Switzerland, near the Italian border. ‘We do absolutely nothing,’ Winifred wrote in a letter home, ‘but paint all day, eat supper and tea at 6.30 wash brushes and prepare canvases, go to bed and dream painting. Sometimes we go for a walk to look for new painty things.’

But sensing that muses need to be fed on sterner stuff, they go back to the UK and find poorer artists to associate with, including Alfred Wallis, a Cornwall fisherman:

He used boat paint, which was easily found in St Ives… Wallis himself, explaining his work, wrote: ‘What I do mosley is what use To Bee out of my own memery what we may never see again.’ Ben became Wallis’s champion … and his unofficial dealer, showing his work to all his friends in London:… For his part, Wallis went on painting as he always had, despite his new celebrity. He spent his last years in the Madron Institute, a workhouse in Penzance; Ben would occasionally visit with supplies of boat paint.(13)

So, Ben Nicholson was champion enough to sell on his works in his wealthy circles, and to keep supplying the outsider artist with paint. But a house in Switzerland is only for those who deserve it: Wallis stays in the workhouse.
Alfred Wallis’ substitute Swiss chalet in Cornwall.

The contempt for the poor occasionally surfaces:

As a child [author] Henry Rider Haggard was believed to be stupid: his father told him he was destined to become a greengrocer. The books aren’t proof that he wasn’t stupid.(14)

But at least he was saved from dispensing groceries, the fate of the truly stupid. Self-awareness, the defensive shield of the privileged, does get hoisted occasionally. From an academic’s description that compares being a British professor in America with Edward Said’s forced exile of the migrant Palestinian:

there’s probably something a bit ridiculous in these privileged laments – oh, sing ’dem Harvard blues, white boy! But I am trying to describe some kind of loss, some kind of falling away.(15)

In what universe is “My town was the university and the cathedral: it seemed that almost everyone who lived on our street was an academic” equatable with getting shot in the back? It would be unfair to ignore the exceptions that prove the rule, so here are two.

Gazdanov was born in 1903 in St Petersburg, to an upper-middle-class family that was Ossetian in origin but Russian-speaking and Orthodox. At 16, he joined the White Army…

Gazdanov’s first job was lugging 36-pound sacks on and off the barges of the Seine; when he couldn’t stand it any longer, he got work washing locomotives. He was homeless for a winter, sleeping on pavements and in Metro stations, until he was taken on at the Citroën factory; he gave that up when he was almost killed by an oncoming lorry, and realised he was going deaf. He got a desk job at Hachette, but found it too difficult to pretend to work for eight hours a day, and soon left that too. Then he settled on the profession that he would stick with for twenty years: driving a taxi at night.(16)

Hard work (Anna)

Willeford was born in 1919 in Little Rock, Arkansas. By the time he was eight, both his parents had died of TB and he was living in Los Angeles with his grandmother, at least on weekends. Monday to Friday, he was sent to live in a boys’ home…

At the age of 13, at the peak of the Great Depression, Willeford ran away from home, boarded a freight train and spent the next year as a hobo, riding the rails like an extra from The Grapes of Wrath…

He would be in and out of the military for the next two decades. He spent two years in the Philippines as a driver of fire engines and petrol tankers, and as a chef.(17)

Willeford, the crime author, is described as being “in a category all of his own in the annals of American crime writing. He is neither glamorous nor pulpy… He simply wrote crime fiction as though reporting real life.” I’d suggest that’s because the space needed to create art is rarely granted to those too busy living, and those poor people, who through skill or luck manage to create that space, reflect their own real lives.

But is it true that whose privilege enables them abstraction and contemplation create art, while those driving petrol tankers are reporters? I’d argue that both are reporters. The wealthy artists are ‘reporting’ the rarefied obsessions and neuroses of the leisured classes, while the worker-artists are reporting on the lives of the world’s majority. Which is the real art?
Thumbs up (Brush with Greatness)
Working class artists do exist.

Not making this up
(1) Vendler, Helen. “I have not lived up to it.” Rev. of The Collected Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins Vols I-II: Correspondence, edited by R. K. R. Thorton and Catherine Phillips. London Review of Books 36.7 (2014): 13-18. 25 May 2014.
(2) Wagner, Anne. “At the Whitechapel.” London Review of Books 36.4 (2014): 26. 25 May 2014.
(3) Mount, Ferdinand. “All the Sad Sages.” Rev. of Memoirs of Walter Bagehot, by Frank Prochaska. London Review of Books 36.3 (2014): 9-11. 25 May 2014.
(4) Turner, Christopher. “I am not a world improver.” Rev. of Building Seagram, by Phyllis Lambert and Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography, by Franz Schulze and Edward Windhorst. London Review of Books 36.3 (2014): 19-20. 25 May 2014.
(5) O’Hagan, Andrew. “Kitty still pines for his dearest Dub.” Rev. of Becoming a Londoner: A Diary, by David Plante and The Animals: Love Letters between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, edited by Katherine Bucknell. London Review of Books 36.3 (2014): 21-23. 25 May 2014 .
(6) Hadley, Tessa. “Pour a stiff drink.” Rev. of All Change, by Elizabeth Jane Howard. London Review of Books 36.3 (2014): 31-32. 25 May 2014.
(7) Porter, Bernard. “Too Glorious for Words.” Rev. of Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Scott Anderson. London Review of Books 36.7 (2014): 23-24. 25 May 2014.
(8) Penman, Ian. “Sonic Foam.” London Review of Books 36.8 (2014): 11-12. 25 May 2014.
(9) Tóibín, Colm. “Notes from the Land of the Dead.” Rev. of A Personal Memoir: Fragments for an Autobiography, by Antoni Tàpies, translated by Josep Miquel Sobrer and Complete Writings Volume II: Collected Essays, by Antoni Tàpies, translated by Josep Miquel Sobrer. London Review of Books 36.6 (2014): 15-20. 25 May 2014.
(10) Stonard, John-Paul. “In the Studio.” London Review of Books 36.2 (2014): 37. 25 May 2014 .
(11) Seidel, Frederick. “Morning and Melancholia.” London Review of Books 36.8 (2014): 16. 25 May 2014.
(12) Mars-Jones, Adam. “Reality Is Worse.” Rev. of Can’t and Won’t, by Lydia Davis. London Review of Books 36.8 (2014): 15-16. 25 May 2014.
(13) Birne, Eleanor. “At Kettle’s Yard.” London Review of Books 36.8 (2014): 18. 25 May 2014.
(14) Rundell, Katherine. “Fashionable Gore.” Rev. of King Solomon’s Mines, by H. Rider Haggard and She, by H. Rider Haggard. London Review of Books 36.7 (2014): 33-34. 25 May 2014.
(15) Wood, James. “On Not Going Home.” London Review of Books 36.4 (2014): 3-8. 25 May 2014.
(16) Pinkham, Sophie. “Waiting for Something Unexpected.” Rev. of The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, by Gaito Gazdanov, translated by Bryan Karetnyk. London Review of Books 36.5 (2014): 36-37. 25 May 2014.
(17) Frears, Will. “Futzing Around.” Rev. of Miami Blues, by Charles Willeford. London Review of Books 36.6 (2014): 39-41. 25 May 2014.

Gyeongju Love Castle (NSFW)

Having heard a lot about Love Land sex park on Jeju Island, I was pleased to discover there are a few of these in South Korea. So I took the opportunity to visit one in Gyeongju in the southwest.

I was doubly intrigued about the park because Korean attitudes towards sexuality can seem schizophrenic. Pornography is forbidden, and there’s a more-than-residual Confucian puritanism that hides public discussion of sexuality. In the west, being a virgin in your teens is a sign of social maladjustment; in Korea it’s the opposite. Plus, since most Koreans live with their parents until marriage, many young people have no space to have sex or just hang out. Frank discussion of sexual problems and attitudes that have existed in western media since the 1960s are only a couple of years old here. Yet love motels, where couples with no private space of their own can rent a room for an hour or a night, abound in every neighbourhood, and cheaper room cafes provide the same service for teenagers. Massage parlours are every half-block and bikini bars, where men are served drinks by young women, are visible near some universities.


This ‘doesn’t exist/exists everywhere’ dichotomy reaches its climax in the Love Castle, because it appears that, once you accept the warnings and enter a sex-positive space, then all coyness disappears. However, the stultifying repression that shapes Korean patriarchy does not, and you end up with a heterogeneous – emphasis on the hetero – mishmash of statues, paintings and interactive displays alternately inspired by art students or someone’s creepy uncle. From the official tourist write-up:

For those much more adult, there is also the Gyeongju “Love Castle” near Blue One Water Park. Not for the faint of heart or anyone under the age of 19, this offers a taste of the infamous “Jeju Love Land” right in Gyeongsangbuk-do with its plethora of erotic statuary and art.

Being more adult, over 19 and stout of heart, I gave it a shot. It was a cold night, so please excuse the shaky camera work – my fingers kept freezing. The Love Castle is on a main road, opposite a number of fancy restaurants. The front gate opens up into a statue park:


Clearly, a lot of thought had been put into this place. The displays are well-made, well-lit and the path wends inside and outside up a hill. Having captured my attention with the statues, the first room began with displays of historical sexual iconography:

I have no idea about its origin or veracity. A few times I thought someone had either recreated historical artwork or just imagined it:
Were there really wooden dildos? Maybe. The paintings, at least, seemed authentic:


From there I moved to cartoon figurines of – fantasies? Slice of life reporting? Social criticism?

Back outside to more statues – some were cute, and some seemed almost like art:

But then there were also asses:

And a series of ‘caught looking’ tableaus that gave me an otaku vibe:
This one’s caption reads “After you next”. Who will the dog choose?

I could see this working in an 80s porn flick.

I’m seeing Indian, Greek, Korean…

Back inside (thank god, I was freezing), to a room of assorted small statues. This was my favourite of the Castle, due to the androgyny and because it’s probably not authorized by Disney:
I guess Koreans are capable of bucktooth Asian stereotypes too.

These look like the gift that the Cuban priest gives Father Ted – maybe that’s the original source?


Nearby, there was also a large glass box in which, after you pressed a button, a wooden man ejaculated water on the glass with the pressure of a firehose.

She looks like she’s enjoying herself.

Back outside, there was a genuinely funny giant statue that sprayed flumes of water meters into the air – so much so that nearby trees were coated in ice:

And then I exited through the gift shop. It had a range of sex toys, condoms, lube – the kind of thing that’s quite hard to find in Korea, at least in shops. No pictures were allowed, as the polite young woman behind the counter made clear.

The displays veered from kitsch to porn to art, with genuine touches of humour and a lot of material that owed more to Benny Hill than Tom of Finland. Queerness is just beginning to be talked about openly in Korea, and that hadn’t trickled down to the Love Castle. The Love Castle is marketed to straight couples – at least, that’s who I saw there (and not many, on a cold weeknight). To the extent that the displays were 100% male gaze-y, it’s sexist. But if you can turn off your critical thinking skills, it’s worth a visit.

The latest in Korean fashion

To lighten up a little, here are some fashion trends I’ve observed over the past year:

The camera don’t lie, only abandoned I’m no longer impressed by Konglish unless it’s profound, and this seems somehow profound.

They were too bored to even finish the sentence.

We have yet to see a broadshoulder male pull off the look.

Wasting away in Jimmy Buffett’s.



Elizabeth the narcissist.

Uh… no comment.

I was impressed at the hammer and sickle.

The marketing never stops, and I’m powerless to not want these.

Remember that.

A gendered idea for a couple shirt. Young Korean couples often wear the same or similarly branded clothing. I’m proud to say I do the same, though not with these.

Andy Warhol is incredibly popular here. No word on whether Wahrol is as well.

From Style Nanda‘s flagship store in Hongdae.

Not fashion, just a ‘children’s letters to soldiers’ display next to the American military base. Nice to see the indoctrination of children continuing apace. Tanks shoot rainbows, don’t you know.

To be fair, this doesn’t mean caucasian, precisely. Being pale in Korea (and China, I understand) is about staying out of the sun. I believe it has its roots in the feudal aristocracy who didn’t have to work outside in the sun, unlike commoners. So it’s definitely classist, but not necessarily racist. Many Koreans are far lighter than I am.

Enter at your own risk.

Work it

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“So isn’t that what we’re all asking in our own lives — ‘where’s my elephant?’ I know that’s what I’ve been asking.”

The ending of political commitment is often termed a retreat from the public sphere. Left or right, activists give up on mobilizing people through various methods – party organizing, public speaking, union agitation, etc – and turn inwards, to the private sphere of work and family.

I first encountered this in a novel when I was 14. A lord is offered the chance of political office and influence, but prefers his castle and the company of his doe-eyed mistress. I instantly identified with him, despite the novel painting him as a failure and minor character, because I wanted a castle too. (My feminist consciousness was too embryonic to wonder why the mistress only got one sentence, and that one devoted to her doe eyes.) I sensed that the preconditions for politics were not just passion but security. Unless you’re a fulltime activist, or lucky enough to have activist opportunities at your workplace, activism is volunteer work that demands huge investments of time and interpersonal skills. You need to not have to worry about your pay cheque, health, retirement, and terrible job in order to do something about the world. Thee Faction are correct: time is better is than wages. But it’s not a choice for most workers. Activism needs time and distance from the capital-labour relationship.

This does not mean workers are ignorant of how capitalist society treats them. On the contrary, workers experience it more acutely than anyone else. Speaking personally, I care more than ever about the injustices of capitalism, because I have to experience them daily. I may not have the physical or mental energy to strategize or philosophize when I’m working full time, looking for work, etc. But I feel the need for revolution most deeply when I’m on the morning bus, stuck in Seoul’s perpetual heavy traffic that dims the horizon with fumes. It’s the experience of work that both makes politics necessary and very difficult to engage in.

Poverty frightens me (Rome Open City)

My music at work

To cope with this post-graduation narrowing of political horizons, I’ve been listening to music constantly at work. I’ve looked for songs about the deadly sameness of work. Here are a few:

Notice they’re all dad-rock. Is there a reason there aren’t any contemporary pop songs that speak to working class alienation? Is it because of the neoliberalization of the music industry? In other words, are there no working class musicians, or have working class musicians become wholly aspirational? The Guardian’s songs about work series was by and large a majority of old songs, or songs from niche genres. It’s been decades since pop songs could say terrible, accurate things about how most people spend their days.

Maybe the explosion of nostalgia for past genres by younger generations, isn’t just due to the rise of technology. Maybe it’s because contemporary music doesn’t speak to people’s experiences. There was always formulaic shit music, but the bands that came from working class backgrounds, and sang about working class lives, also got exposure. Where are those voices now? Where’s The Jam, The Smiths, innumerable funk bands?

You have something that belongs to us (Masters of the Universe)
A future, some reflection of our collective experiences, creativity and autonomy…

I was your teacha

These questions have been sparked by my continuing failing attempts to get into academia. At this point, after months of fruitless trying, when I could’ve taught myself Korean, learned how to program or acquainted myself with the history of experimental film in the time spent applying for jobs, it’s a reasonable question to ask: why bother? If the working conditions and future prospects are so dismal in academia, why do I keep trying, like so many others? Post-grads are smart people, surely we can figure out the odds. Our enthusiasm can’t all be professional snobbery or being misled by department heads. The answer, I’d suggest, is that anyone who’s ever had a ‘real job’ knows that academia is an escape from the drudgery. It’s that hope that keeps a million adjuncts holding on in vain.


However, it’s the lack of that knowledge that keeps the Human Resource industry churning out vague affirmations like:

recognize and remember that you are the final arbiter of any job offer. If you want to remain in academia, that is your choice. Similarly, if you want to leave academia, that is your choice. Whatever choice you decide to make is the right choice.

Like all falsehoods, this has a grain of truth. Sometimes you can leave, but then you face the reality that no HR guru will ever, ever acknowledge: being a professor is a good job, not just because of the money (though that’s not bad), but because it gives you creativity and control.

I’m shocked by how nobody ever says this. Being a professor means hundreds of people hang on your every word, and those words are topics you’ve studied and are interested in – or at least, topics that you can give an interesting take on. Sure, they’re often not listening for the right reasons: the students want the grade, not your wisdom. But there are always a few in each class you can reach. Your job is to convince people of something, and to judge how well they understand you. However much the students might resent being there, they need you. That’s an incredibly powerful position.


Let’s not pretend most jobs are equivalent to this. I’d imagine senior management positions in the private or NGO sector have similar levels of autonomy, but to prosper in these jobs you need to buy into a mission that’s not your own. As a professor, a large part of your job is to design courses: shape a debate on an important issue and present that to students. As an executive, a large part of your job is to make the company profitable. I don’t believe it’s possible to feel as part of that process compared to making money off your opinions. It’s part of the reason why academia pays less: doing something that you get to believe in is part of the deal.

As for the vast majority of other jobs, explain to me how serving muffins or making coffee or filing or filling insurance claims or a million other socially useless jobs come close in terms of satisfaction. I’ve worked many of them, and they don’t. To claim they do is not only patronizing and classist: it proves that HR professionals are blinkered ideologues.

Letting me work (Billy Liar)

Proof of how terrible most jobs are isn’t necessary for most workers. Proof of the shocking ignorance of HR professionals comes further down the paragraph:

it is common for PhDs, especially those in the humanities, to maintain that they are “over-qualified for the typing pool and under-qualified for a real job,” this is patently untrue (we also find it a stunning and very sad comment on how academics view their education).

She’s lying. This is patently true: I’ve been told to my face by employers that I’m overqualified. I lie to them, not because I like the typing pool but because I need to pay my rent. Is this a stunning and sad form of elitism? Having spent the last year feeling stunned and sad every day on my way to work, I’d like the HR professional to step in my shoes. Say goodbye to the speaking engagements, comped breakfasts and conference per diems. No more concerned VP Admins or minor Department of Education bureaucrats trying to solve the supply-side of the labour market by paying you $1000 a day. No newspaper calling you up for a column. Say hello to repetitive rote tasks, to which your labour contributes an infinitesimal part; sitting at a desk and typing until your wrist hurts because you have daily deadlines; and the firm knowledge that nobody knows or cares what you do, because it has no impact on politics, economics or social policy. That is real work: dispensing career advice is precious, dilettantish fantasy whose main purpose is to transfer blame for alienation from the ruling class to workers themselves.

You can't change (Billy Liar)
Otherwise, how would we maintain the uninterrupted accumulation of capital?

The best way to identify this class bias is to see its opposite. I was dumbfounded to read that tenured professors are the most unhappy members of academia (“Why are associate professors so unhappy?”) Listen to their explanation of why a $70K job for life is difficult:

I’ve looked behind the curtain, and Oz just isn’t all that great. Everybody is asked to do a whole bunch of stuff we didn’t sign on for, like sitting on an admissions committee debating whether someone with a 15 ACT score should be admitted. It all feels so much more plebeian and mundane.

You have to sit on a committee? Imagine how mundane it feels to be the person with the score whose future depends on whether you’re in a good mood because you’ve drunk enough coffee today? Think about the billions of people who ‘didn’t sign on for’ sublimating all their creative energy into creating forms or gadget parts, whose ability to express themselves is not just truncated but smashed. It’s the expectations of this pampered professional layer that expresses the pre-existing class position of academics. They are workers, but their origins lie elsewhere.

Grateful for office job (Billy Liar)

This is the secret of the lengthening queue for academic jobs. Being a professional is wonderful compared to the other options. Yes, of course we have to unionize academia and erase the divisions between professions. The first step is organizing campus-wide unions that include faculty and cafeteria workers. But you don’t get there by denying those divisions exist. Even paying a cleaner the wages of a tenured faculty member wouldn’t make those jobs equivalent. The prof would still have it a thousand times better.

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The Korean ferry disaster

Anyone living in South Korea has most likely been triggered by the wall-to-wall coverage of the ferry sinking. It’s being called a national tragedy. Quick update for cave-dwellers: the Sewol was making a routine trip from Incheon in the north of the Korean republic to the traditional resort island of Jeju. It strayed too close to shore, made a sharp turn and hit something, then slid quickly – but not too quickly – into the water, where as of today it remains wholly submerged, while 500 divers retrieve bodies from inside.

Which brings me to the collective trauma currently being inflicted on the South Koreans as they watch the ferry rescue operation unfold. Seoul is quiet: last weekend was warm and sunny, yet sidewalks were still navigable and there were seats in the cafes. It’s considered poor form to laugh too loudly, and no one feels like it anyway.

Unfortunately, the collective grief is shot through with scapegoating. The captain of the ferry left the boat early, as did many of the crew. Although five minutes into the disaster they were told to prepare the passengers for evacuation, the order didn’t get broadcast for another half hour, by which point the boat began seriously listing. It’s easy to look at the crew as a bunch of cowards, intent on saving their own skins rather than helping the passengers. Indeed, the inexplicable order for people to stay below deck in their cabins seems like outright murder, a point that President Park has been quick to capitalize on.

These facts, combined with the heartrending texts as the teens discovered too late they couldn’t leave, have led to some predictable responses. Suicide by a survivor; attacking the rescuers; attacking the governor of Gyeonggi province for making the questionable decision to write some poetry about how difficult the rescue operation is. What drives these responses is how personalized they are: the problem lies with individuals. For grieving parents, this is understandable; for politicians, it’s calculated.

The more level-headed media outlets, international and local, have pointed out major flaws with the ‘evil sailors’ argument.

1) The uncertainty of the crew’s actions. The transcript of the unnamed crew member trying to get instructions from the maritime control station is infuriating – possibly moreso because I’ve had so many conversations like this in Korea, albeit with far less at stake:

Controller: “Please go out and let the passengers wear life jackets and put on more clothing.”

Crew member: “If this ferry evacuates passengers, will you be able to rescue them?”

Controller: “At least make them wear life rings and make them escape.”

Crew member: “If this ferry evacuates passengers, will they be rescued right away?”

Controller: “Don’t let them go bare. At least make them wear life rings and make them escape… We don’t know the situation very well. The captain should make the final decision and decide whether you’re going to evacuate passengers or not.”

Crew member: “I’m not talking about that. I asked, if they evacuate now, can they be rescued right away?”

The crew member tries to get a straight answer on whether it’s safe to evacuate, and the controller either doesn’t know or won’t tell him/her. The captain had similar concerns: he claims not to have ordered an evacuation because he thought the teenagers would get swept out to sea and die of hypothermia. Even if this seems to present a greater chance of survival than staying below deck, it’s the kind of ‘best guess’ thinking of the untrained – and given he wasn’t on the deck at the time of the disaster, and a 26 year old with 6 months’ training making only her second navigation through those waters was – training was clearly lacking. The first ‘bang’ signalled the ship’s listing and may have been cargo shifting in the hold, since the hull appears undamaged. Some couldn’t walk because they were injured by shifting cargo, making the evacuation order irrelevant.

Yet the crew were certified safe, and this points to 2), the much-larger story that President Park is keen to bury with accusations of murder: there are systemic failures at every level of the disaster response and shipping company policy.

a) The ship was only allowed to operate because the Korean government relaxed safety regulations on the import and retooling of old ships in 2009
b) the cargo was not loaded or secured properly, and safety inspections weren’t done
c) the ship may have been travelling too quickly to make up for lost time – spend any time in a Seoul bus or taxi and you’ll know this is standard procedure
d) the ship may have had its stabilizing ballast load emptied to go faster

The crew members were irresponsible, maybe criminally, but so were the ship owners and government regulators. And the amateurish disaster response, which featured different ministries refusing to share information with one another, shows that however criminal the crew were, the bureaucrats were just as unfocused.

The story will develop for a long time to come; the laughter of Seoul’s happy groups of students will be muted as well. (That sounds terribly cliched but it’s true: you can’t walk in a campus, or down a street in a trendy neighbourhood without hearing groups of laughing young adults, often slapping each other.) Whatever the details to follow, the only clear feature of this tragedy so far is that it was a collective failure, not a personal one, sparked by shoddy regulations and genuine instant decision-making. Let’s not rush to judge.

Relative safety

I’ve saved the speculation till last, because it’s subjective and could be entirely irrelevant. But since other commentators haven’t shirked from blaming greed, cowardice or human nature, I’m going to add in my observations of Korean safety rules. First, I’ve seen heavy moving equipment balanced on old wooden beams, I’ve dodged cars and scooters driving on sidewalks, I’ve had to pressure my landlord to buy a cheap smoke alarm, which apparently is not mandatory – safety standards in Korea are not what I’m used to in the west.

Second, there’s the ‘rigid rules, flexible implementation’ model of laws and regulations. Everybody knows that you can argue your way out of a speeding ticket or immigration violation. Bureaucrats often don’t know the rules they’re supposed to enforce. Again, this is something I never realized before I came to Korea. Where I come from, bureaucrats delight in the immovable nature of rules, presumably for the power they provide. Here, things are flexible. That’s not a bad thing: it’s part of the reason Korea can develop and change so rapidly. I’ve seen 10 restaurants open in my small neighbourhood in the last six months, and I highly doubt each went through a planning and environmental assessment process. If you want to get things done quickly, it helps to be flexible. But then you can get things like poorly-secured cargo.

My deepest sympathies to the families and friends of the dead.

Trigger Warning

A trigger warning is material that can cause distress to traumatized people. Trauma happens when you receive a mental shock so threatening to your safety – say, getting shot – that you can’t store it as memory. You get blocked and the memory remains present, as if it’s happening now. Any feature that reminds you of that trauma brings it back: a sight, sound, smell, it doesn’t matter. It’s no accident that PTSD was first identified in American veterans of the Vietnam and Gulf Wars, and that some radical treatments for it have come out of treating victims of terrorist bombings.

War: an accepted source of trauma

It’s become common to write ‘trigger warning’ before an article or picture that deals with violent imagery. However, arguments against trigger warnings have also appeared and become mainstream after Oberlin College, a small liberal arts institution, advised instructors to avoid presenting material that would remind sexual assault survivors of their trauma. Numerous editorials appeared about those crazy liberals and their thin skins, but there were two counter-arguments worth taking seriously.

1) Well-meaning liberals warned of the dangers of censorship:

Students should be pushed to defend their ideas and to see the world from a variety of perspectives. Trigger warnings don’t just warn students of potentially triggering material; they effectively shut down particular lines of discussion with “that’s triggering”.

I usually care about censorship when governments censor radical ideas. But that’s not really necessary these days: the weight of new material published daily smothers radical or controversial material, and the liberal fiction of ‘giving equal weight to all sides’ simply ensures that the powerful can create new sides when necessary. Censoring harmful material is a different, more complex issue, and I don’t think people should get carte blanche to try and hurt or trigger others.

suffering 2
But if it’s too intense, it doesn’t contribute much of anything

2) This is the more serious critique that some leftists have advanced. Triggers are not just seeing something you don’t like, but come out of trauma, or more specifically, Post-Traumatic Distress Syndrome. If the problem is just trigger warnings, that’s another way of saying “Violence exists but let’s not talk about it.” In fact, media triggers are the tip of the iceberg. War, gendered sexual violence and disasters are the real traumas of capitalism and patriarchy. Trigger warnings are just a way to trivialize real trauma.

What is trauma?

The problem with this argument is that it assumes trauma is acute: a single big event. But trauma is also chronic: a slow accumulation of humiliations can also become trauma and leave someone just as PTSDed – and open to triggers – as a survivor of a drone attack. Humans are complex because their environments are complex, and there’s no way to codify the point at which something becomes a trigger. Some people go through bombings and make art; others get bullied and become shrinking wrecks.

Bart shocked

Chronic trauma

Does acknowledging chronic trauma diminish the real suffering of those who went through acute events? I don’t think so. With research showing that the impact of bullying lasts your whole life, I think chronic trauma’s impact is real and quantifiable. [Edit: See The Guardian‘s harrowing account of boarding school abuse:

Psychiatrists I have spoken to agree that, yes, while sexual and physical abuse is the headline grabber (and what makes criminal cases), real damage is done to children and adults by long-term psychological abuse. A child may recover from a blow, but not from the withdrawal of love and the denial of safety – the “complex trauma” child psychologists talk of.


Chronic trauma is a thing, and it’s equatable to acute trauma in the long term. Real violence, however slight, can accumulate. However, this doesn’t mean acute pain hurts less. It clearly hurts a lot more in the moment. It’s telling that the symptoms of PTSD are equally available for victims of terrorism and victims of loveless childhoods. We’re all individuals: there is no way to equate differing sufferings, which is a morally odious exercise anyway.

Bart anxious

And this is my problem with the calls to prioritize acute trauma over other varieties: it ranks suffering, and who gets to suffer the most? For example, I volunteered teaching English to Somali women refugees who left their countries fleeing violence. They were some of the most upbeat people I’d ever been around, constantly joking; only once did a grandma tell me that she had to leave when unnamed assailants seized her property, and the inference was clear that she was next. If I had to pick a group of most-traumatized, they’d get the medal. But there was no way to decide if they had suffered more than, say, the Chilean refugees from the Pinochet regime, or the Iranian refugees from the Ayatollah’s regime that I’ve met, worked and joked with.

Instead of ranking – which is endemic to language politics for some reason – we need to recognize how harmful all violence is: physical, sexual, verbal, emotional, and their social subtext. And given the breathtaking sweep of daily violence committed against and by so many, that can lead to a sense of despair. I think that’s a deeper source of the reaction against trigger warnings. They raise another, equally frightening prospect: that daily life in capitalism is so difficult that we’re all traumatized.

Homer traumatized (The Blunder Years)